How Shakespeare Used Sadistic Humor in His Plays to Depict Struggles of Women in Society

Comedy is a variety of drama that induces laughter at human acts, typically involving romance and love. In Shakespeare’s era, the typical comedy depicted the struggle of youthful lovers to overcome some hardship, usually instigated by the adults in their lives. At times the struggle was the reunion of separated family members or lovers. Even though Shakespeare observed these boundaries, his innovation came up with different variations like a tragic comedy. The following essay will illustrate that Shakespeare used sadistic humor in his plays to depict the struggles of women in society.

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Shakespeare’s  Use of Sadistic Humor in his Plays to Depict the Struggles of Women in Society

Comedy is mainly concerned with the criteria of the implicitly political and explicitly sexual. In regards to Shakespeare, he was mainly interested in patriarchal law (Marshall, 264). This is the patriarchal law that is instituted by the state but is also presumed to be part of society’s natural order. As such, Shakespeare used sadistic comedy to illustrate the patriarchal nature of society during his time. The female characters in Shakespeare’s plays can be pretentious until the last scene when most people get married, and the natural social order is restored (when males are in charge) so they can live a happy life.

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Shakespeare perceived marriage as a way of restoring social order (Marshall, 265). This was illustrated by his romantic comedies which are always, to some degree, about the beginning, development and lock up of sexual relationships by encompassing them with the social structure of marriage. From the start to conclusion, the primary motive is the urge to convert sexual passion into successful marriages.  Mass marriage, therefore, is s relative conclusion to Shakespeare’s sadistic comedies (Marshall, 265). It leaves the audience with the impression that the world is a perfect place since each character got what he/she deserves and that marriages that are sexually monogamous play a key role in preserving the structure of society.

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In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, some men are preparing to perform as a celebration of the wedding of Duke Theseus to Queen Hippolyta. In the second scene of the first act, Nick Bottom, the shallowest person in the group, informs another character that he would like to coordinate the entire performance. Even though Bottom has already been handed the character of Pyramus, he also wants to pose as the Lion and Thisby. Indeed, Bottom wanted to enact all sections of this play within a play as illustrated by this phrase; “Let me play the lion too.  I will roar, that I will do any man’s heart good to hear me.  I will roar, and I will make the Duke say, ‘let him roar again; let him roar again” (Shakespeare). Shakespeare uses this humor to showcase the importance of wedding ceremonies in the 16th century. Due to the importance attached to it, Bottom was so eager to take over the group’s performance since he perceived it as a chance of impressing a woman who eventually becomes his wife.

In the second scene of the third act, Puck decided to make fun of Bottom. He replaced Bottom’s head with that of an ass. This illustration of a person named Bottom wearing the head of an ass is one instance of the sexual puns that Shakespeare uses to depict patriarchy. Even though Bottom was donning an ass’s head, Titania still accepts him as his suitor. Shakespeare used Bottom’s misfortune to depict the situation in society. A woman had no choice but to accept a potential suitor even though he may not be what she wants.  If a woman reached a certain age without being married, it would be perceived that there is something wrong with her.

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Numerous critics have asserted that Shakespeare’s depiction of women in his sadistic comedies illustrates that he had strong prejudices against women. For instance, the dominant sexuality The Merchant of Venice is authoritarian and masculine, acting under the assumption that women are vulnerable to sexual sin. Throughout the play, women lack authority in social and political domains. Some authors assert that the play creates a sense of powerlessness among the female characters. For instance, in Act II, Scene vii, Shylock forbids his daughter Jessica from marrying a gentile. As a result, she steals his money and escapes town with a Christian. Shylock’s reaction to this turn of events is comical since he does not know whether it is his daughter or the money that he values more. He cries “My daughter!  O my Ducats! —O my Daughter!  Fled with a Christian! —O my Christian ducats!” (Shakespeare). The fact that a father can value money more than his daughter showcases the low standing that women had in society.

Other critics suggest that the men in Shakespeare’s plays are fearful of women. The men typically perceived women as a looming threat to their identities (Harper, 1). Further, the sexual repulsion broadly depicted in his plays are due to the intrinsic male fear of being seduced by females. There is also the constant depiction of women who strong sexual urges and sin. Throughout Shakespeare’s plays, there is a constant fear of maternal power among the male characters (Harper, 1). It is the fear of victimization among men that brings about the victimization of women. Men are fearful that they will be feminized.

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The fear of feminization is depicted by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. He is a man of contradictions since he is both a sinner and sinned against. Shylock surfaces in the middle of much dancing, singing, lovemaking, and pageantry. He is at times devious and vicious, while other times he seems pitiable and admirable. As the play advances, Antonio loses his ship while at sea and fails to pay back the debt. Consequently, the court is forced to enforce Shlock’s immoral but legal right to kill Antonio. Shylock ignored pleas of mercy and even refused to reactive payment that was three times the size of Antonio’s debt. He defends his position by stating that “The pound of flesh which I demand of him / is dearly bought, is mine, and I will have it: / If you deny me fie upon your law!” (Shakespeare). Suddenly, Portia walked into the courtroom dressed as a judge. She outsmarts Shylock by stating “Tarry a little; there is something else. — / This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; / The words expressly are a pound of flesh; / Take then thy bond… / But, in the cutting, if thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands, and goods / Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate…” (Shakespeare 198). This illustration depicts the threat that women placed on men. Even though none of the male judges could stop Shylock from subjecting Antonio to a sadistic fate, Portia managed to do so by outwitting Shylock.

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The Power of Misfortune in Shakespeare’s Plays

Even though Shakespeare uses sadistic humor to illustrate the powerlessness of women, some authors suggest that he is feminist. Many at times, the women in his plays are smarter than the men, happier, livelier, saner, and more are of themselves and their surroundings (Harper, 1). In fact, the men in Shakespeare’s plays pose a challenge to the conventional social order. The women are not passively submissive; they challenge the social structure that is defined and executed by men.  A structural characteristic in the plays is the sadistic humor facilitated by the rebellious nature of women and the order facilitated by the reassertion of men.

The women in plays end up as heroines and develop into a powerful force that threatens the social authority of women like when Portia disrupted the court session to defend Antonio. Indeed, the female characters are the author’s natural ally. Shakespeare typically gifts his female characters with the characteristics that develop a comedy; self-acceptance, a reliable and constant identity, and a love for the simple pleasures in life (Harper, 1). It has often been suggested that the comic hero appears dull when placed next to the brilliant heroine. This is what Shakespeare’s manages to achieve through the use of sadistic humor.


In light of Shakespeare’s plays, there is no benefit at laughing at the powerless since one’s fate can change instantly. Even though the women in his plays are powerless initially, they end up being in a favorable position. Through the use of sadistic humor, Shakespeare clearly illustrates that the powerless do not remain in that position forever.

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